Several years ago, in an attempt to break into the military market, I ventured into a small U.S. Army town in central Louisiana. The first real estate agent I met said these words to me: “I’m warning you. You had better do what you say you will do for my soldiers. The first time you don’t, I will never use you or your company again.” She said it with such ferocity, I was taken aback. She referred to her clients as “my soldiers.” It was a promise, not a threat, and I knew it.
I will never forget her words of warning that she would not tolerate anything less than excellence for her military clients. She was ensuring that anyone she trusted with her client referrals operated with the excellence these military clients deserved. But it wasn’t until I sat across the table from my first military client, a young soldier just home from Iraq, that I could truly understand. As we talked, I realized this soldier had just risked everything he had in order for our country to enjoy its freedom. He had risked his life for me. It became personal. The weight of my responsibility to this young man was heavy on my shoulders.
"Honor never grows old, and honor rejoices the heart of age. It does so because honor is, finally, about defending those noble and worthy things that deserve defending, even if it comes at a high cost. In our time, that may mean social disapproval, public scorn, hardship, persecution, or as always, even death itself. The question remains: What is worth defending? What is worth dying for? What is worth living for?"—William J. Bennett
Since that first day, I have originated thousands of VA loans for thousands of military clients. But I never take for granted that I have the privilege of serving those who serve. It is not a small thing, and I consider it an honor. I call it being “a watchdog for our warriors.”
What exactly does this mean? The definition of a watchdog is “a watchful guardian … to watch carefully, especially so as to detect illegal or unethical conduct.” The “warriors” in this case, of course, are the military men and women who serve our country. But why is this necessary to be a watchdog for this group?
Unfortunately, there are individuals and companies in our industry that use predatory financial practices and aggressive marketing tactics to target servicemen and women as they return from war. I call those predators the “wolves.” The wolves, for example, would rather steer a service member into a higher-cost, conventional loan because it is easier for them to originate than a VA loan. I have personally pledged to stand as a watchdog between “warriors” and the “wolves,” and to encourage others to do the same. And I am not alone.
One of the more famous military advocates in our country is Holly Petraeus, the wife of General David Petraeus. Perhaps the ultimate warrior watchdog, Holly Petraeus has pledged to protect our military from becoming the victims of scams. After conversations with service members from 27 military bases across the country, Petraeus joined the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in 2011 as the assistant director of the Office of Servicemember Affairs. Petraeus, who understands first-hand, as a military spouse, the hardships that service members and their families face, also expresses an obligation to protect service members from predatory practices.
The military are a targeted population for many businesses who cheat, scam and overbill. In a recent USA Today article, Petraeus referred to the pawn shops, "Buy Here, Pay Here" car lots and stores offering “pay day” loans that were “lined up like bears at a trout stream” outside her husband’s military base. Because many service members are young, financially inexperienced, and transient, they are unaware of these potentially dishonest businesses. Petraeus admits she is using her name recognition and is on a mission to educate military consumers and monitor their complaints.
She could use help. Never has so long a military conflict been fought by such a small percentage of Americans. Right now, for loan professionals across the nation in particular, there is a huge opportunity to become watchdogs over our service members. There are 23.5 million living veterans and 1.4 million active duty military personnel. This translates into eight percent of Americans, many of whom have fought and served, have special needs and challenges, and some of which are:
►Experience a higher rate of suicide
►Experience a higher rate of divorce
►Find themselves in a higher rate of unemployment
►Higher rate of homelessness
►Suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
►Have experienced traumatic brain injury
►Bouts of depression
►Other invisible wounds of war
But there’s more. Service members are often young and not equipped with the financial education to protect themselves. As a result, many become susceptible to and vulnerable to scammers. According to Debt.org, about 27 percent of military families owe more than $10,000 in credit card debt, compared to 16 percent of all Americans. One-third of enlisted personnel and junior non-commissioned officers admit patronizing “pay day” or other high-cost, easy-credit lenders. In fact, indebtedness is the top reason why service members get their security clearances revoked.
While fighting in battles abroad, a soldier’s focus may be on staying alive and not on their financial condition back home. As a result, many are face foreclosure or financial problems while they are serving overseas. According to ABC News, approximately 185,000 service members face a Permanent Change of Station of order each year. If they have underwater loans, this could lead to challenges as they are forced to leave that home and move to a new base.
Recently, my company determined that there was a need to provide a platform whereby loan professionals could be thoroughly trained, equipped and certified to handle with excellence the mortgage home loan needs of active duty military and veteran clients. A standard of practice and operation guide was created for loan professionals who work with military clients to ensure that all service members and veterans would receive a positive home loan experience.
If you are considering working with the military, below are some of the standards of practice you may want to incorporate into your operation:
►Checklists: There is an absolute necessity of checklists for setting standards of excellence in all areas of your mortgage practice, including origination, processing, underwriting, closing and shipping. You will find military clients appreciate the importance of checklists. As one former fighter pilot said “you live and die by the checklist.” Checklists not only detail the loan process, but also serve as a reference and establish standards and accountability.
►Written best practices: This establishes a protocol when the military client is deployed and utilizing a Military Power of Attorney. Written best practices include:
♦Method of communication with deployed/absent borrower
♦Method of transmitting and receiving documentation
♦Delivery and receipt of time sensitive loan documentation
♦If the client is deployed, a method of contact on the date of closing to verify he or she is alive and well
►Proficiency with VA loans and military culture: Having extensive knowledge and expertise in these areas is absolutely crucial. Regular training should be mandated for individuals and teams.
►Additional certification: USA Cares (www.USACares.org) provides an excellent training course for anyone who is serious about working with the military. The course is directed by Beverly Frase who works to ensure lenders and housing professionals everywhere know how to provide the skilled services our military personnel expect and deserve.
Last, but certainly not least, consider giving of your time, talents and money to projects to honor the military and veterans and become a part of a give-back program. One of the organizations my company supports is the Boot Campaign (www.BootCampaign.com), a grassroots military appreciation and veteran awareness campaign started by five women from Texas, known as the Boot Girls. The Boot Girls launched the Boot Campaign in 2009 to spread awareness about the needs of military personnel returning home from combat and to express gratitude to those currently enlisted. Through the sale of military combat boots, the Boot Campaign donates its proceeds to a group of partner charities that work with soldiers who are healing from a variety of physical and emotional combat wounds.
To me, being a watchdog for the warrior is a mission to honor the men and women of the U.S. military and their families for their service to our nation, and to fulfill the obligation we have to each and every one of these heroes for the freedoms we enjoy. The Warrior Ethos has become my personal battle cry on this mission:
"I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade."
Louise Thaxton is a producing branch manager for Fairway Independent Mortgage Corporation, with satellite offices across Louisiana and Florida. She has been in the mortgage business for 15 years and is an ambassador of the Boot Campaign. She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]